Thursday, April 22, 2010

Bits are Bits

What do movies, music, video games, telephone conversations, textbooks, magazines, television shows, tweets, SMS, blogs, etc. all have in common? They are increasingly created and distributed as bits. Each bit is either a 1 or a 0, and the bits in the latest video game are of course the same as those representing a math textbook. The real magic is the careful arrangement of bits and communicating these bits to the right place at the right time.

Clearly a musician has a different set of skills than a painter or a programmer. But the ultimate output of their work is nearly always a sequence of carefully placed bits. The music industry has the specialized skills needed to transform an artist's expression into recorded sound. Historically they have also been responsible for publishing, distributing, and selling these recordings. Lately they have taken on the additional challenge of enforcing copyright issues. The very different skills of a software developer necessitates its own industry for creating useful or entertaining software. This software industry also publishes, distributes, and sells software in addition to handling intellectual property concerns, namely through DRM (digital rights management). Two wholly independent industries exist (music & software), but a large portion of the effort, namely publishing, distribution, and sales, is completely redundant. So with this underlying digital representation common across all signals and media, why are we stuck with many different, competing channels for the distribution, sale, and protection of bits?

In a word: legacy. Historically phone companies had very little in common with book publishers and television broadcasters. Lucrative industries formed organically around each technology. Each industry grew apart. Public libraries sprung up to allow people to share printed materials. Visitors could use any book in the building, and most were eligible to be taken home for a period of time, often free of charge. It is quite hard to imagine public libraries offering to loan computer software to take home (or download) and use for a specified period of time. These separate industries grew in different directions, and this leads to the redundancy, hassle, and inefficiency we find today.

One obvious example of bit-gouging is the price which U.S. cellular telephone service providers charge for text messaging (SMS). A service plan of $59 per month will give you 1000 minutes of talk time and a free phone on TMobile, but text messages cost 10 - 20 cents each. And fees are levied for a sent message as well as a received one. So with these numbers, a minute of speech costs ~5.9 cents, while a text message costs 20-40 cents. The number of bits in a text message is much smaller (at a max of 160 characters, the maximum text message is only 1280 bits). A minute of speech (audio) on the other hand is on the order of 4 MB before compression. Therefore, one minute of speech contains roughly 3000 times the number of bits as a text message, but the cell providers charge over 5 times as much for the text message.

So how can the cell providers get away with this? Simple: they charge what people are willing to pay. With so many different bit channels available to us today and the growing adoption of smart phones, I suggest using email messages in place of text messaging. Granted, this may not be a smart choice if your provider charges for data downloads by the bit. With growing support for push notification, this is becoming the seamless experience that SMS is praised for. The point is, the industries that served and sold us bits in the past are quickly getting in the way of themselves.

Industrial protection of the bit channels leads to frustrating attempts at DRM. I certainly do not condone piracy. AAA games can cost development studios up to 50 million dollars to create. They obviously rely on sales to stay in business. One of my first experiences with DRM is with the game Where in Time is Carmen San Diego. The game included a ~1000 page printed encyclopedia in the game box. When starting the game (from a DOS prompt no less) the program required the user to look up key words in the encyclopedia to begin playing. This is based on the premise that copying the game disks is easy, but copying a 1000 page printed book is difficult. At the time this seemed a huge hassle. Today we would be thankful for such a transparent user experience.

Microsoft took a huge step in the wrong direction when Windows XP started the "activation" trend, which continues to this day. Users must purchase the software and a license. When the software is installed, the computer must be connected to the internet (now internet connectivity is assumed, but some specialized use computers still remain offline), and the computer must connect to one of Microsoft's servers and exchange license information before the software would work properly. If something unforeseen happens and Microsoft disappears, then the software becomes a shiny coaster. The most egregious violations of personal privacy are the Sony root kit disaster and the MSN music debacle. Two of the biggest names in digital commerce are responsible for sneaking software which opens root vulnerabilities on users' computers and the swift disappearance of entire libraries of legally purchased music (respectively). At best, such measures of controlling the sharing of bits is equivalent to being physically searched for stolen goods when leaving a shop. At worst, DRM measures effectively penetrate personal privacy and render legally purchased products useless.

I am certainly not the first to suggest this, but it is time to adopt a new way of publishing, distributing, selling, and protecting bits. I propose that all digital media and communications adopt a unified model for all stages beyond the creative phase. The current industries are siloed, redundant, and cumbersome. People are willing to pay for valuable content, and they do not deserve to be treated like criminals unless there is reason to believe they are.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

What is Texas?

Obviously it's a state. Perhaps it's also a state of mind. As a Texan for most of the last 6 years, it seems Texans strongly identify with Texas, and no matter where you're from, Texas carries a lot of weight.

Much like New York City overshadows the state of New York, it seems people identify with the state of Texas perhaps more than even our country. A whole host of catchphrases have sprung up including: "Don't mess with Texas", "Texas is bigger than France", "Everything is bigger in Texas", "Buckle up Texas", etc.

Texas has a rich history of being fiercely independent. At one point it was its own republic, and more recently Governor Perry refused federal stimulus funds. This independence has fostered a stronger sense of state identity than is found elsewhere. Everybody knows Texas is the "Lone Star" state. After living in Ohio, the only reason people know Ohio is the "Buckeye State" is because of a successful collegiate athletics program at The Ohio State University, where a Buckeye is the mascot. Four years in Pennsylvania has taught me that nobody knows Pennsylvania is the "Keystone State".

The name Texas conjures strong imagery to Texans and non-Texans alike. Texans associate the word with freedom, friendliness, independence, and familiarity while non-Texans are likely to think of horses, cowboy hats, silly boots, and bola ties.

Whatever the reason for this state identity, major companies have certainly cashed in on its strength and influence. In this sense, Texas is a brand name. The name Texas signifies that something is bigger, better, or somehow more authentic. Of course such shameless branding has led to wonderful consumer goods such as: Texas shaped tortilla chips (found earlier today in the local HEB grocery store), Lone Star beer (the national beer of Texas), countless other beer signs and Texas logo emblazoned on beer cans, and last but not least, pickup trucks. The big 3 US automakers generally sell special edition trucks specifically for the Texas market, such as the King Ranch edition Ford SuperDuty (pictured).

This post is not intended to be a rant against the nebulous concept of Texas; it is intended to spark thought about a fascinating peculiarity. Many Texans are very proud of their state, as reflected in the words of the immortal Willie Nelson:

It's where I want to be
The only place for me
Where my spirit can be free

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Problem with iPad

The Apple iPad went on sale April 3rd, 2010 to much fanfare. Apple is billing it as a new type of device, and reviewers consider it a tablet media player/PC. Reputable reviewers are raving about iPad with such superlatives as: "a laptop killer", "a winner", "one of the best computers [sic] ever", and "the iPad beats even my most optimistic expectations. This is a new category of device. But it also will replace laptops for many people."

Now the iPad is definitely a slick piece of kit. Apple has created a beautiful hardware product. It is gorgeous in its simplicity and solid metal and glass construction. The size is a ideal for transporting while being big enough to handle some real reading tasks. The benefits end here. Unfortunately the iPad is saddled with a few crippling weaknesses.

Cory Doctorow has a great explanation here. The main argument is against the restrictive software model. Computers are meant to be examined, experimented with, tinkered with, and optimized. Even if a casual user wants only to to check emails and browse YouTube, he benefits greatly from those who are more inclined to take a closer look at the machinery in front of them. These "power users" are the ones who create free and open source software. They're the ones who keep the big guys honest by discovering flaws in commercial software. They're the ones who evangelize the latest technology. This is particularly disturbing to find technologically informed people praising and pushing the iPad.

The iPad is not a computer. It is a glorified media consumption device. A computer can run arbitrary code. It can do what the user tells it to do. The iPad tells the user what he can do, and he should be happy to pay for the privilege. In order to run software on the iPad, a programmer must write a program according to Apple's specs in a specific language (Objective C) and then submit it for approval to the app store. Then Apple must approve of this software before it is published. If the developer wishes to charge for the software, Apple automatically takes a fixed cut of 30% of the proceeds. This means a developer must play by Apple's (and perhaps AT&T's) Draconian rules in addition to sacrificing 30% just for the privilege of writing software for the iPad.

And because I'm a sucker for lists, here's a list of flaws with the iPad:
  • Relies on the app store for ALL software
  • Requires iTunes for loading files
  • No multi-tasking
  • XGA screen (1024x768) cannot display HD content
  • No user accessible file system
  • No replaceable battery
  • No expansion ports (arguably not a flaw)
The starting price on the iPad is $499, which is respectable given the hardware design. However, just like the automobile industry, the hardware options will affect the price considerably. Adding a 3G radio and 48GB of flash memory increases the price a whopping 66%.

Apple clearly creates different products with different customers in mind. I've been heavily using a MacPro with OSX Snow Leopard Server lately and I am very satisfied with the experience. I'm no UNIX whiz yet (I'm probably still more comfortable with a DOS prompt), but having terminal access right on the dock is a fantastic feature. Like any respectable server, I can connect remotely via SSH and hack until I'm happy. In fact, the Apple II+ even included schematics for the circuit boards. In contrast, Apple's first foray into the ultra-thin and light computing market, the MacBook Air, didn't even include an ethernet port.

In an attempt at streamlining (ahem, asserting control over the user), Apple has eliminated the concept of files with the iPad. Until cloud computing and services like Google docs are ready for prime time, the iPad is useless as a content creation tool. That leaves it as a media and internet consumption device. Such media players aren't necessarily bad, and the form factor of the iPad is quite suitable. But Apple has dropped the ball again, this time by forcing iTunes usage. We all know how Plays for Sure TM turned out; even a juggernaut like Microsoft was unable to salvage the music libraries of paying customers. There is no place for DRM is today's technology climate, though this is a rant for another time. It is easy to fill up the iPad's memory with media content and applications remotely, but it is impossible to remove media content without docking to an iTunes workstation (with wires, no less, even though Wifi is already built into the iPad and ubiquitous).

The critical praise of the iPad reeks of irresponsible, lazy journalism. The reviewers are too lazy to truly identify what the iPad is and what it is not. It is not a computer. It is a handcuffed media player mashed with a mediocre internet browser wrapped in a sexy package. It's much easier to be seduced by Apple's rhetoric and entranced by the pretty hardware design than to truly evaluate the capabilities and merits of the device.